Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Caroll Tavris, Elliot Aronson
That is why self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done.
When we cross these lines, we are justifying behavior that we know is wrong precisely so that we can continue to see ourselves as honest people and not criminals or thieves.
Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent,
So powerful is the need for consonance that when people are forced to look at disconfirming evidence, they will find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing belief. This mental contortion is called the “confirmation bias.”
Neuroscientists have shown that these biases in thinking are built into the way brains process information—all brains, regardless of their owners’ political affiliations. For example, in one study, people were monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they tried to process dissonant or consonant information about George Bush or John Kerry. Drew Westen and his colleagues found that the reasoning areas of the brain virtually shut down when participants were confronted with dissonant information, and the emotion circuits of the brain were activated when consonance was restored.13 These mechanisms provide a neurological basis for the observation that once our minds are made up, it is hard to change them.
Once we are invested in a belief and have justified its wisdom, changing our minds is literally hard work. It’s much easier to slot that new evidence into an existing framework and do the mental justification to keep it there than it is to change the framework.15
The bettors who had placed their bets were far more certain about their choice than the folks waiting in line.18
dissonance works: Don’t listen to Nick. The more costly a decision in terms of time, money, effort, or inconvenience, and the more irrevocable its consequences, the greater the dissonance and the greater the need to reduce it by overemphasizing the good things about the choice made. Therefore, when you are about to make a big purchase or an important decision—which car or computer to buy, whether to undergo plastic surgery, or whether to sign up for a costly self-help program—don’t ask someone who has just done it. That person will be highly motivated to convince you that it is the right thing to do.
Rather than cutting their losses, most people will throw good money after bad in hopes of recouping those losses and justifying their original decision.
Actually, decades of experimental research have found exactly the opposite: when people vent their feelings aggressively, they often feel worse, pump up their blood pressure, and make themselves even angrier.20
Justifying his first hurtful act sets the stage for more aggression. That’s why the catharsis hypothesis is wrong.
Catharsis was a total flop in terms of making people feel better. The people who were allowed to express their anger about Kahn felt far greater animosity toward him than those who were not given that opportunity. In addition, although everyone’s blood pressure went up during the experiment, subjects who expressed their anger showed even greater elevations; the blood pressure of those who were not allowed to express their anger soon returned to normal.21 Seeking an explanation for this unexpected pattern, Kahn discovered dissonance theory, which was just getting attention at the time, and realized it could beautifully account for his results. Because the students thought they had gotten the technician in serious trouble, they had to justify their actions by convincing themselves that he deserved it, thus increasing their anger—and their blood pressure.
In all these cases, a vicious circle is created: Aggression begets self-justification, which begets more aggression.
Fortunately, dissonance theory also shows us how a person’s generous actions can create a spiral of benevolence and compassion, a “virtuous circle.” When people do a good deed, particularly when they do it on a whim or by chance, they will come to see the beneficiary of their generosity in a warmer light. Their cognition that they went out of their way to do a favor for this person is dissonant with any negative feelings they might have had about him. In effect, after doing the favor, they ask themselves: “Why would I do something nice for a jerk? Therefore, he’s not as big a jerk as I thought he was—as a matter of fact, he is a pretty decent guy who deserves a break.”
Participants who had been cajoled into doing a special favor for him liked him the best; they convinced themselves he was a particularly fine, deserving fellow. The others thought he was pretty nice but not anywhere near as wonderful as the people who had done him a personal favor believed.22
In other words, once children saw themselves as generous kids, they continued to behave generously.23
Franklin was disturbed by the opposition and animosity of a fellow legislator. So he set out to win him over. He didn’t do it, he wrote, by “paying any servile respect to him”—that is, by doing the other man a favor—but by inducing his target to do a favor for him. (He asked the man to loan him a rare book from his library.)
truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.”24
Therefore, dissonance theory predicts that the more self-confident and famous experts are, the less likely they will be to admit mistakes.
Dissonance reduction operates like the burner on a stove, keeping our self-esteem bubbling along. That is why we are usually oblivious to the self-justifications, the little lies to ourselves that prevent us from even acknowledging that we made mistakes or foolish decisions. But dissonance theory applies to people with low self-esteem too, to people who consider themselves to be schnooks, crooks, or incompetents. They are not surprised when their behavior confirms their negative self-image.
Our convictions about who we are carry us through the day, and we are constantly interpreting the things that happen to us through the filter of those core beliefs.
When the person at the top of the pyramid is uncertain, when there are benefits and costs for both choices, then he or she will feel a particular urgency to justify the choice made. But by the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid, ambivalence will have morphed into certainty, and he or she will be miles away from anyone who took a different route.
The Milgram experiment shows us how ordinary people can end up doing immoral and harmful things through a chain reaction of behavior and subsequent self-justification.
How do you get an honest man to lose his ethical compass? You get him to take one step at a time, and self-justification will do the rest.
A richer understanding of how and why our minds work as they do is the first step toward breaking the self-justification habit. And that, in turn, requires us to be more mindful of our behavior and the reasons for our choices. It takes time, self-reflection, and willingness.
The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on its owner the comforting delusion that he or she does not have any. In a sense, dissonance theory is a theory of blind spots—of how and why people unintentionally blind themselves so that they fail to notice vital events and information that might make them question their behavior or their convictions. Along
Social psychologist Lee Ross calls this phenomenon “naïve realism,” the inescapable conviction that we perceive objects and events clearly, “as they really are.”
Introspection alone will not help our vision, because it will simply confirm our self-justifying beliefs that we, personally, cannot be coopted or corrupted and that our dislikes or hatreds of other groups are not irrational but reasoned and legitimate. Blind spots enhance our pride and activate our prejudices.
The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none. —Thomas Carlyle, historian and essayist
The critical turning point occurred in 1980, when the Supreme Court ruled that patents could be issued on genetically modified bacteria independent of the process of development. That meant that you could get a patent for discovering a virus, altering a plant, isolating a gene, or modifying any other living organism as a “product of manufacture.” The gold rush was on—the scientists’ road to St. Andrews. Before long, many professors of molecular biology were serving on the advisory boards of biotechnology corporations and owned stock in companies selling products based on their research.
The pharmaceutical industry was deregulated, and within a decade it had become one of the most profitable businesses in the United States.11
And as a result, their assessments tilted toward their presumed employer: those who believed they were working for the prosecution assigned higher risk scores to offenders, and those who believed they were working for the defense assigned lower risk scores.14
Of the studies funded by industry, only 14 percent found harmful effects on health; of those funded independently, fully 60 percent found harmful effects.15
The evidence shows, however, that most physicians are influenced even more by small gifts than by big ones.26
The reason Big Pharma spends so much on small gifts as well as the big ones is well known to marketers, lobbyists, and social psychologists: being given a gift evokes an implicit desire to reciprocate.
There’s a clever dissonance-reducing claim for you—“Perfect objectivity is impossible anyway, so I might as well accept that consulting fee.”
Cognitive psychologists view stereotypes as energy-saving devices that allow us to make efficient decisions on the basis of past experiences; they help us quickly process new information, retrieve memories, identify real differences between groups, and predict, often with considerable accuracy, how others will behave or think.32
Us is the most fundamental social category in the brain’s organizing system, and the concept is hardwired. Even the plural pronouns us and them are powerful emotional signals.
Yet participants liked the nonsense syllables more when they were linked with in-group words than with any other word.34 Not one of them guessed why; not one was aware of how the words had been paired.
The very act of thinking that they are not as smart or reasonable as we are makes us feel closer to others who are like us. But, just as crucially, it allows us to justify how we treat them. Most people assume that stereotyping causes discrimination; Al Campanis, believing that blacks lack the “necessities” to be managers, refused to hire one. But the theory of cognitive dissonance shows that the path between attitudes and action runs in both directions. Often it is discrimination that evokes the self-justifying stereotype;
whenever people are emotionally depleted—when they are sleepy, frustrated, angry, anxious, drunk, or stressed—they become more willing to express their real prejudices.
Because we need to feel we are better than somebody.
Social psychologist Anthony Greenwald has described the self as being ruled by a “totalitarian ego” that ruthlessly destroys information it doesn’t want to hear and, like all fascist leaders, rewrites history from the standpoint of the victor.
At the simplest level, memory smooths out the wrinkles of dissonance by enabling the confirmation bias to hum along, selectively causing us to forget discrepant, disconfirming information about beliefs we hold dear.
Because a silly argument on our side and a good argument on the other guy’s side both arouse dissonance, the theory predicts that we will either not learn these arguments very well or forget them quickly.
Because memory is reconstructive, it is subject to confabulation—confusing an event that happened to someone else with one that happened to you, or coming to believe that you remember something that never happened.
Parent blaming is a popular and convenient form of self-justification because it allows people to live less uncomfortably with their regrets and imperfections.
Memories create our stories, but our stories also create our memories. Once we have a narrative, we shape our memories to fit into it.
Just as our current feelings about our parents shape our memories of how they treated us, our current self-concepts affect memories of our own lives.
If a memory is a central part of your identity, a self-serving distortion is even more likely.
False memories allow people to forgive themselves and justify their mistakes, but sometimes at a high price: an inability to take responsibility for their lives. An appreciation of the distortions of memory, a realization that even deeply felt memories might be wrong, might encourage people to hold their memories more lightly, drop the certainty that their memories are always accurate, and let go of the appealing impulse to use the past to justify problems of the present.
As evidence accumulated on the fallibility of memory and the many confabulations of recovered-memory cases, the promoters of this notion did not admit error; they simply changed their view of the mechanism by which traumatic memories are allegedly lost. It’s not repression at work anymore, but dissociation; the mind somehow splits off the traumatic memory and banishes it to the suburbs. This shift allowed them to keep testifying, without batting an eye or ruffling a feather, as scientific experts
In a small closet off the corpus callosum? In their paper “The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations,” Deena Weisberg and her colleagues demonstrated that if you give one group of laypeople a straightforward explanation of some behavior and another group the same explanation but with vague references to the brain thrown in (“brain scans indicate” or “the frontal-lobe brain circuitry known to be involved”), people assume the latter is more scientific—and therefore more real. Many intelligent people—including psychotherapists—fall prey to the seductive appeal of this language, but laypeople aren’t called upon in court to try to explain what it means.16
For any theory to be scientific, it must be stated in such a way that it can be shown to be false as well as true.
The scientists have shown that very young children, under age five, often cannot tell the difference between something they were told and something that actually happened to them. If preschoolers overhear adults exchanging rumors about some event, for example, many of the children will later come to believe they actually experienced the event themselves.
dissonance theory predicts, once an incorrect idea has achieved prominence, and especially if that idea has caused widespread harm, it rarely fades away. It lies in wait, like the false belief that vaccines cause autism, reemerging at any opportunity that might allow its promoters to claim they were right all along.
And you’re sitting there thinking, ‘Wait a minute. Either this overwhelming evidence is wrong or I was wrong—and I couldn’t have been wrong because I’m a good guy.’ That’s a psychological phenomenon I have seen over and over.”13 That phenomenon is self-justification.
The greater their confidence, the greater the dissonance they will feel if confronted with evidence that they were wrong, and the greater the need to reject that evidence.
It’s like the horse-race study we described in chapter 1: Once you have placed your bets, you don’t want to entertain any ideas that cast doubt on that decision. That
The antidote to these all-too-human mistakes is to ensure that in police academies and law schools, students learn about their own vulnerability to self-justification.
Cognitive dissonance theory offers “a potent, inexpensive, and inexhaustible tool for accomplishing this goal: the officer’s own self-concept.”
We are not referring here to the garden-variety kind of self-justification that we are all inclined to use when we make a mistake or disagree about relatively trivial matters, like who left the top off the salad dressing or who forgot to pay the water bill or whose memory of a favorite scene in an old movie is correct. In those circumstances, self-justification momentarily protects us from feeling clumsy, incompetent, or forgetful. The kind that can erode a marriage, however, reflects a more serious effort to protect not what we did but who we are, and it comes in two versions: “I’m right and you’re wrong” and “Even if I’m wrong, too bad; that’s the way I am.”
While happy partners are giving each other the benefit of the doubt, unhappy partners are doing just the opposite.5
Implicit theories have powerful consequences because they affect, among other things, how couples argue, and even the very purpose of an argument. If a couple is arguing from the premise that each is a good person who did something wrong but fixable, or who did something blunder-headed because of momentary situational pressures, there is hope of correction and compromise. But, once again, unhappy couples invert this premise: They blame each other’s unwillingness to change on personality flaws, but excuse their own unwillingness to change as personality virtues. If they don’t want to admit they were wrong or modify a habit that annoys or distresses their partner, they say, “I can’t help it. It’s natural to raise your voice when you’re angry. That’s the way I am.” You can hear the self-justification in these words because, of course, they can help it. They help it every time they don’t raise their voice with a police officer, their employer, or a three-hundred-pound irritating stranger on the street.
Anger reflects the hope that a problem can be corrected. When it burns out, it leaves the ashes of resentment and contempt.
Gottman finds, is when the “magic ratio” dips below five to one: Successful couples have a ratio of five times as many positive interactions (such as expressions of love, affection, and humor) to negative ones (such as expressions of annoyance and complaints).
When the positive-negative ratio has shifted toward those negative feelings, however, couples resolve dissonance caused by the same events in a way that increases their alienation from one another.
When the couple has hit this low point, they start revising their memories too. Now the incentive for both sides is not to send down the negative things “with the water under the bridge” but to encourage every negative thing to bubble up to the surface. Distortions of past events—or complete amnesia—kick in to confirm the couple’s suspicion that they each married a complete stranger, and not a particularly appealing one either.
have found that nothing foretells a marriage’s future as accurately as how a couple retells their past,” John Gottman observes.12 Rewriting history begins even before a couple is aware the marriage is in danger. Gottman and his team conducted in-depth interviews of fifty-six couples and were able to follow up with forty-seven of them three years later. At the time of the first interview, none of the couples had planned to separate, but the researchers were able to predict with 100 percent accuracy the seven couples who divorced.
Dissonance theory would lead us to predict that it is the very people who have the greatest initial ambivalence about their decision to divorce—or who feel the greatest guilt over their unilateral decision—who have the greatest urgency to justify their decision to leave. In turn, the bereft partner feels a desperate urgency to justify any retaliation as payback for having been treated so heartlessly and unfairly. As both parties come up with confirming memories and all those horrible recent examples of the ex’s bad behavior to support their new accounts, the ex turns completely villainous. Self-justification is the route by which ambivalence morphs into certainty, guilt into rage. The love story has become a hate book.
In contrast, the couples who grow together over the years have figured out a way to live with a minimum of self-justification, which is another way of saying that they are able to put empathy for the partner ahead of defending their own territory. Successful, stable couples are able to listen to each other’s criticisms, concerns, and suggestions undefensively. In our terms, they are able to yield, just enough, on the self-justifying excuse “That’s the kind of person I am.” They reduce the dissonance caused by small irritations by overlooking them, and they reduce the dissonance caused by their mistakes and major problems by solving them.
In good marriages, a confrontation, difference of opinion, clashing habits, and even angry quarrels can bring the couple closer, by helping each partner learn something new and by forcing them to examine their assumptions about their abilities or limitations. It isn’t always easy to do this. Letting go of the self-justifications that cover up our mistakes, that protect our desires to do things just the way we want to, and that minimize the hurts we inflict on those we love can be embarrassing and painful. Without self-justification, we might be left standing emotionally naked, unprotected, in a pool of regrets and losses.
A man travels many miles to consult the wisest guru in the land. When he arrives, he asks the great man: “O wise guru, what is the secret of a happy life?” “Good judgment,” says the guru. “But, O wise guru,” says the man, “how do I achieve good judgment?” “Bad judgment,” says the guru.
two fundamental lessons from dissonance theory emerge: First, the ability to reduce dissonance helps us in countless ways, preserving our beliefs, confidence, decisions, self-esteem, and well-being. Second, this ability can get us into big trouble. People will pursue self-destructive courses of action to protect the wisdom of their initial decisions. They will treat those they have hurt even more harshly, because they convince themselves that their victims deserve it. They will cling to outdated and sometimes harmful procedures in their work. They
Social scientists are finding that once people are aware of their biases, know how they work, and pay mindful attention to them—in effect, once they bring them into consciousness and say, “There you are, you little bastard”—they have greater power to control them.
naïve realism: the bias that we see things clearly and therefore have no bias. This bias is the central impediment to negotiations between any two individuals or groups in conflict who see things entirely differently.
Instead, Peres took a third course. “When a friend makes a mistake,” he said, “the friend remains a friend, and the mistake remains a mistake.”14 Consider for a moment the benefits of being able to separate dissonant thoughts as clearly as Peres did: Friendships that might otherwise be terminated in a huff are preserved; mistakes that might otherwise be dismissed as unimportant are properly criticized, and their perpetrators—even if they are our friends—held accountable. People can remain passionately committed to their nation, religion, political party, spouse, and family, yet understand that it is not disloyal to disagree with actions or policies they find inappropriate, misguided, or immoral. And when the dissonance is caused by something we ourselves did, we keep Peres’s third way in mind: Articulate the cognitions and keep them separate. “When I, a decent, smart person, make a mistake, I remain a decent, smart person and the mistake remains a mistake. Now, how do I remedy what I did?”
By identifying the two dissonant cognitions that are causing distress, we can often find a way to resolve them constructively or, when we can’t, learn to live with them until we have more information. For example, when we hear about a sensational allegation in the news, especially one in which sex is involved, we can resist the emotional impulse to hurl ourselves off that pyramid in outraged support of the accused or the accuser. Instead of slotting the story into an ideological framework—“Children never lie”; “Believe survivors, even if they remember nothing”; “All fraternity men are rapists”—we can do something harder and more radical: Wait for the evidence.
Becoming aware that we are in a state of dissonance can also help us make sharper, smarter, conscious choices instead of letting automatic, self-protective mechanisms resolve our discomfort in our favor.
Suppose your unpleasant, aggressive coworker has just made an innovative suggestion at a group meeting. You could say to yourself, “An ignorant jerk like her could not possibly have a good idea about anything,” and shoot her suggestion down in flames because you dislike the woman so much (and, you admit it, you feel competitive with her for your manager’s approval). Or you could give yourself some breathing room and ask yourself: “Could the idea be a smart one? How would I feel about it if it came from my ally on this project?” If it is a good idea, you might support your coworker’s proposal even if you continue to dislike her as a person. You keep the message separate from the messenger. In this way, we might learn how to change our minds before our brains freeze our thoughts into consistent patterns.
Mindful awareness of how dissonance operates is therefore the first step toward controlling its effects. But two psychological impediments remain. One is the belief that mistakes are evidence of incompetence and stupidity; the other is the belief that our personality traits, including self-esteem, are embedded and unchangeable. People who hold both of these ideas are often afraid to admit error because they take it as evidence that they are blithering idiots; they cannot separate the mistake from their identity and self-esteem.
“Ironically, this natural tendency to lecture may be one of the worst things a family member or friend can do,” Pratkanis says. “A lecture just makes the victim feel more defensive and pushes him or her further into the clutches of the fraud criminal.” Anyone who understands dissonance knows why. Shouting “What were you thinking?” will backfire because it means “Boy, are you stupid.” Such accusations cause already embarrassed victims to withdraw further into themselves and clam up, refusing to tell anyone what they are doing.
Therefore, says Pratkanis, before a victim of a scam will inch back from the precipice, he or she needs to feel respected and supported.
Con artists take advantage of people’s best qualities—their kindness, politeness, and desire to honor their commitments, reciprocate a gift, or help a friend. Praising the victim for having these worthy values, says Pratkanis, even if they got the person into hot water in this…
Their epiphany occurred as they watched a Japanese boy struggle with the assignment of drawing cubes in three dimensions on the blackboard. The boy kept at it for forty-five minutes, making repeated mistakes, as Stevenson and Stigler became increasingly anxious and embarrassed for him. Yet the boy himself was utterly unself-conscious, and the American observers wondered why they felt worse than he did. “Our culture exacts a great cost psychologically for making a mistake,” Stigler recalled, “whereas in Japan, it doesn’t seem to be that way. In Japan, mistakes, error, confusion [are] all just a natural part of the learning process.”16 (The boy eventually mastered the problem, to the cheers of his classmates.) The researchers also found that American parents, teachers, and children were far more likely than their Japanese and Chinese counterparts to believe that mathematical ability is innate; if you have it, you don’t have to work hard, and if you don’t have it,…
One classic example, once taught to American schoolchildren and still on many inspirational websites in various versions, is Thomas Edison’s reply to his assistant (or a reporter), who asked Edison about his ten thousand experimental failures in his effort to create the first incandescent light bulb. “I have not failed,” he told the assistant (or reporter). “I successfully discovered ten thousand elements that don’t work.” Most American children, however, are denied the freedom to noodle around, experiment, and be wrong in ten ways, let alone ten thousand. The focus on constant testing, which grew out of the reasonable desire to measure and standardize children’s accomplishments, has intensified their fear of failure. It is certainly…
Stevenson and Stigler observed: American children believe that making mistakes reflects on their inherent abilities. In her experiments, some children are praised for their efforts in mastering a new challenge. Others are praised for their intelligence and ability, the kind of thing many parents say when their children do well: “You’re a natural math whiz, Johnny.” Yet these simple messages to children have profoundly different consequences. Children who, like their Asian counterparts, are praised for their efforts, even when they don’t get it at first, eventually perform better and like what they are learning more than children praised for their natural abilities. They are also more likely to regard mistakes and criticism as useful information that will help them improve. In contrast, children praised for their natural ability learn to care more about how competent they look to others than about what they are actually learning.17 They become defensive about not doing well or about making mistakes, and this sets them up for a self-defeating cycle: If they don’t do well, then to resolve the ensuing dissonance (“I’m smart and yet I screwed up”), they simply lose…
Dweck has been changing her students’ attitudes toward learning and error for years, and her intervention is surprisingly simple: She teaches elementary-school children and college students alike that intelligence is not a fixed, inborn trait, like eye color, but rather a skill, like bike riding, that can be honed by hard work. This lesson is often stunning to American kids who have been hearing for years that intelligence is innate. When they accept Dweck’s message, their motivation…
Understanding how the mind yearns for consonance and rejects information that questions our beliefs, decisions, or preferences not only teaches us to be open to the possibility of error but also helps us let go of the need to be right. Confidence is a fine and useful quality; none of us would want a physician who was forever wallowing in uncertainty and couldn’t decide how to treat our illness, but we do want one who is open-minded and willing to learn. Nor would most of us wish to live without passions or convictions, which give our lives meaning and color, energy and hope. But an unbending need to be right inevitably produces self-righteousness. When…
All of us will have hard decisions to make at times in our lives; not all of them will be right, and not all of them will be wise. Some are complicated, with consequences we could never have foreseen. If we can resist the temptation to justify our actions in a rigid, overconfident way, we can leave the door open to empathy and an appreciation of life’s complexity…
Michael. “But in any play, Act 2 is where the action is,” said Elliot. “In life as in a play, you can’t leap from Act 1 to Act 3. We skip Act 2 at our peril, for that’s when we go through the turmoil of confronting our demons—the selfishness, immorality, murderous thoughts, disastrous choices—so that when we enter Act 3, we have learned something. Fitzgerald was telling us that Americans are inclined to bypass Act 2; they don’t want to go through the pain that self-discovery requires.”
Act 1 is the setup: the problem, the conflict the hero faces. Act 2 is the struggle, in which the hero wrestles with betrayals, losses, or dangers. Act 3 is the redemption, the resolution, in which the hero either emerges victorious or goes down in defeat.18
Exactly: maturity requires an active, self-reflective struggle to accept the dissonance we feel about hopes we did not realize, opportunities we let slide by, mistakes we made, challenges we could not meet, all of which changed our lives in ways we could not anticipate. And to do this, we must apply the same compassion to ourselves that we would extend to others.
Those with the highest well-being, however, had been able to take what the researchers describe as “an unusually brutal perspective on a former self”: “Should I say I was an idiot?” said one woman. “I had no idea what the life was that I was dreaming about.” Yet she can now look back at that lost self with compassion, a younger self who can be excused for her naïveté. The happiest, most mature adults were those who could embrace the losses in their lives and transform them into sources of deep gratitude—not with platitudes or Pollyanna glosses, say the researchers, but by discovering the genuinely positive aspects of their multifaceted lives.
he might get there: “I tortured,” he says. He does not say “I am a torturer.” In this way he separates his behavior from his identity, and that ability is what ultimately allows people to live with behavior they now condemn.
All of us can carry this understanding into our private lives: Something we did can be separated from who we are and who we want to be. Our past selves need not be a blueprint for our future selves. The road to redemption starts with the understanding that who we are includes what we have done but also transcends it, and the vehicle for transcending it is self-compassion.
In the final analysis, a nation’s character, and an individual’s integrity, do not depend on being error free. It depends on what we do after making the error. The poet Stephen Mitchell, in his version of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, writes: A great nation is like a great man: When he makes a mistake, he realizes it. Having realized it, he admits it. Having admitted it, he corrects it. He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers.